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IndyCar: New car number, new attitude have Marco Andretti very optimistic about 2018

Firestone 600 - Qualifying

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10: Marco Andretti, driver of the #27 Snapple Andretti Autosport Honda, prepares for Star-Telegram Qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Patrick Smith

To use an old baseball adage, for a number of IndyCar drivers this season, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

Several drivers have not only switched teams, they’ve also switched car numbers, in a sense giving them a new identity and a new reboot to their careers. Among those: Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and also Marco Andretti (new number but still with same team).

After driving the No. 27 for the last three Verizon IndyCar Series seasons, Andretti has switched to the No. 98 for 2018.

While he’s still under the Andretti Autosport corporate umbrella, Marco will be driving for the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian subsidiary of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta.

In a sense, it’s a new number, new start for the third-generation IndyCar driver.

“I’d like to think so,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I definitely need a fresh start. If I keep carrying all this baggage of not having won a race and this and that, it’ll be tough to win a race.

“I have all the confidence in the world in myself and my team that we can do it. We just need to look forward because I really think we have the pace and camaraderie and personnel this year. I don’t see a weak guy on the team. Everybody’s extremely hard-working and on the same page and that’s what it’s going to win a championship. So, yeah, a fresh start would be great.”

This is the fourth time Andretti, who just turned 31 on March 13, has had a different number grace the side of his race car:

* He previously drove the No. 26 from 2006-2012 (Zack Veach is driving that car number this season).

* He drove the No. 25 from 2013-2014. The switch from No. 26 did him good: in 2013, he finished a career-best fifth.

* He drove the No. 27 from 2015-2017 (Alexander Rossi has taken over that number in 2018).

Andretti will be the first to admit he struggled last season, finishing 12th (albeit an improvement from 16th in 2016). That’s why he believes switching numbers and driving primarily for Herta will be a good change for him.

He’s already started out in a good way, finishing ninth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg over two weeks ago.

“I think that was a race where the qualifying and the race result did not reflect our performance,” Andretti said. “And going forward, I actually prefer that because it’s not like we lucked into ninth. Ninth was like the worst where we should have finished.

“There was a point in that race where I drove from 18th to third and I was having a go at second. I think pace-wise we’re where we need to be and I’m hoping there’s not going to be a weak part all year for us.

“I can’t think of a track right now that I’m not looking forward to going to. That’s a good feeling. I had a lot of fun in that race, I passed like 30 cars. Yeah, you can get bummed out because you finished ninth because you deserved better, but at the same time, I think it bodes well for the rest of the season for the No. 98.”

You can readily tell how optimistic Andretti is simply by listening to him. He’s much more positive sounding than he has been the last couple of years.

Much of that can be tied to the new IndyCar body, which has received rave reviews by both drivers and fans.

“For me in particular, I’d like to think it’s a bigger gain for me than anybody else because of how much I struggled with the last kit,” Andretti said. “It was so light-switchy grip. You either had way too much downforce or it’s gone, so it’s very hard to feel where the limit is.

“I think now the car is on the limit all the time because it’s so light and it’s a lot busier. I think it’s more physical because of how busy it is and how tense you are on the wheel to try and keep the thing beneath you, but I prefer that and I feel that’s the way a race car should be: a beast that’s not easily tamed.”

After 201 career starts, two wins and 20 podium finishes, the new car has Andretti hoping to return to victory lane for the first time since his second and most recent IndyCar win in 2011 (his first came as a 19-year-old series rookie in 2006).

He could not pick a better place to take the checkered flag than next week at Phoenix – or in two weeks in Long Beach. The Phoenix race will have added significance for Marco, as ISM Raceway will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of his grandfather Mario’s final IndyCar victory in 1993.

To honor his grandfather, Marco will be driving a throwback livery – sponsored by Oberto Beef Jerky – that looks very similar to his grandfather’s Newman-Haas Racing Texaco Valvoline ride in that milestone race.

“I’m looking forward to Phoenix, honoring my grandfather’s last win there, so that will be really cool,” Marco Andretti said. “We had a real good test there (in February) and were fast in race and qualifying trim.

“So, I’m really looking forward to getting these cars back on the short ovals with the new aero kit. And of course, Long Beach, the following week, is such an iconic place for IndyCar and the history there. I love going there and the fans and the setting there. I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks.”

Marco is also very bullish on the overall series and even greater success this season. IndyCar has seen a steady climb in TV ratings and at-track attendance in the last several years, coupled with last week’s announcement that NBC and NBCSN will be the exclusive network for over-the-air and cable TV, as well as digital and streaming rights online for IndyCar from 2019 through 2021.

“It’s all positive things,” Marco said. “When you look at what INDYCAR is doing, a lot of other sports are on the decline, but we’re on an upswing, so we should get double the credit.

“It’s a tough thing, what we’re trying to do here, but at the same time, I look at our product and say, ‘How do you not watch this thing?’ We’re a bunch of crazy guys at crazy speeds in open-wheel racing, and the product and the racing and race-ability of these cars is the best and it’s the most competitive. I’ll put us against any sport, even Formula One.”

And as for the No. 98 team and its driver in particular?

“I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders right now and that’s what it’s going to take to win a championship,” the younger Andretti said. “For the last couple of years, I wasn’t even able to say that word – championship.

“Now I really am (able to say it), I believe it, I want to string together a few wins, I want to win the Indy 500 and I think it could be a pretty awesome year.”

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